Since the great 'Trading Card Boom' of 2019 (or so), card companies have been given the tall task of trying to harness the increased demand for their products, whilst also attempting to innovate with fresh products to help expand the trading card community! From an AFL perspective, Select and TeamCoach have both successfully adapted to the ever-changing landscape of collector wants and desires of hobby members in their respective fields.
However as the AJ's regularly chat about on Card Authority, 'there's no such thing as a "new idea" in the sports card hobby! It's not as though card-makers plagiarize one another, but it would be hard to argue that popular card designs aren't used as muses for inserts in other hobbies such as AFL. It needs to be remembered that trading cards have been in existence for many generations, and it's fair to say that there have been many attempts to reinvent the wheel. There hasn't been many ideas which haven't been attempted in cardboard form, which makes the task of "innovation" difficult to achieve!
This leads us to today's topic of whether collectors truly want innovation, or simply recreations of nostalgia? A conversation which has always confused me and in light of recent news, has left me even MORE perplexed!
A few weeks ago, AFL TeamCoach announced that their 2023 release would include a collaboration with former trading card manufacturer 'Scanlens' ! The collaboration has come in the form of a 60th anniversary tribute series, which 'tips its hat' to the widely-loved 1963 Scanlens set.
Personally I love the concept, as It pays true homage to the '63 set and has been produced as close to a replica as humanely possible. Okay, then what DON'T I love? Whilst I'll join the chorus of people losing their minds over a 'retro' trading card, IT IS QUITE LITERALLY THE OPPOSITE OF INNOVATION!
Collectors have been DEMANDING for 'fresh ideas' within newly released products. But most likely those same collectors are foaming over a 'recycled idea' which has been produced with the same printing process and technology of cards minted 60 years ago! So what do collectors truly want? Something new and different with the chance of being underwhelmed by the execution? Or cards which take you back to a potentially easier time in your life, but don't bring forth anything unique to the collecting table?
This article is NOT focused on how Select, TeamCoach or any other card company fail to innovate because that premise is simply not true. Innovation not only comes in the form of card design, but for reasons alluded to above, it's recognized as the hardest part to successfully accomplish. From a collector standpoint however, it should also be acknowledged as the highest priority! So if innovation isn't solely defined by fresh card designs, then else can it look like?
In recent times, Select have innovated in area's such as product access, player checklists and card concepts which have all been popular initiatives, The SCC Membership program has allowed a group of 1000 (or so) dedicated main-stay collectors guaranteed access to stock from every release in that calendar year. This has helped prevent seasoned collectors being pushed aside in a collecting climate which has completely transformed from as early as two years ago! Another attempted innovation that's happened quite recently is the improvement of the 'Instant Win' prizes found in Series 1 products! What use to be a throw-away insert for a 'barrel-drawn' prize pool, has now evolved into currently one of the most valuable insert found in Footy Stars 2023!
Innovation also came in the form of expanding existing mechanisms within Selects releases. Rookie cards in AFL products have become more popular year on year, with some of the most valuable cards available on the secondary market being variations of a players first trading cards! Select actively listened to community discussion and in turn introduced 'Supremacy Rookies' which provided a high-end alternative to Series 2 Rookie Cards. Predictors have also improved yearly, with 2023 Footy Stars providing collectors more speculation than ever before! The predictor checklist has expanded to introduce the 'Rising Star Predictor', whilst also giving familiar inserts a scarcer platinum variation!
My last point touches on the innovation of player checklists, which takes us back towards the debate of whether collectors ACTUALLY want innovation or simply nostalgia! Whilst the third instalment of the 'Prestige' series will go down as a pretty maligned release, Select did try to innovate the player checklist with their case hit!
In the lead up to that particular "Series 1.5" product, there had been rumblings throughout the community for different types of players appearing on the more shorter printed cards. And that's exactly what happened! Step aside Patrick Cripps, and say hello to.... Jayden Laverde? Select's Prestige Virtuoso Case-Hit player checklist comprised strictly of stalwart backman across the league! And whilst it included defender-superstars like Tom Stewart and Darcy Moore, it also included much lesser household names such as Sam Collins, Alex Keath and Tom Doedee!
For a product that was viewed as "stale", the change that was demanded by the community probably shone an extra light on the flaws of the release, and impacted the recouped value from opened boxes. It leads me to wonder if the overall view of Prestige 2022 would've been more positive if more 'marketable players' were used as their case hit?
Another example of 'seemingly backfired' innovation is the newly released 'Iconic' case-hit! Something Select have tried to include more in the insert designs is more portrait based cards, such as the 'Headliners' from Optimum 2021, and the 'Matrix' insert from Optimum 2022. Whilst the 'Iconic's' have INCREASINGLY grown on collectors over time, their settling prices on the secondary market compared to a similarly numbered inserts such as the 'Footy's Finest', suggest they haven't been as popular as anticipated. But is a 'black and white' like or dislike for any future short printed case hits going to be how the community reacts to any attempts of change?
Would collectors have been happier with the short-printed revival of an old classic such as the 'Prime Draft' insert last seen in 2013, or recreating the 'Legend Tribute' card which has previously featured the likes of Jason Dunstall and Gary Ablett Snr?
Moving forward, the downside of Select Australia's license only extending to one sport, is that they don't have any testing grounds for insert concepts without taking the plunge and running them through releases! What I'm referring to is understanding the luxury that big overseas players such as Panini have when it comes to making recycled 'home-run' ideas seem innovative.
If you are unfamiliar with the licensing of Panini, as of today they currently hold the trading card rights to the NBA, NFL, UFC, WWE, Soccer, Collegiate Sports and NASCAR. Within these licenses they produce staple releases such as Prizm, Chronicles, Mosaic, Obsidian, and Immaculate to only name a few! When new sports are introduced through these release channels it delivers massive amounts of hype and demand for the "next big thing".
The most recent example being Panini's "brand new" WWE Revolution 2023 which includes the 'Kabooms' of superstar wrestler-athletes such as Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson'. And again whilst it will be an awesome addition to the card collecting fraternity, it's a heavily recycled insert which is being met with thunderous applause! For every 'Kaboom', there have been plenty of 'Iconic's'. But those attempts at innovation are better hidden under the avalanche of releases and inserts minted. So because Select don't have those release channels at their disposal, are they better off seeing what overseas collectors resonate with instead of trying to be innovative in their own right? Would collectors rather reactiveness to proactiveness?
It's important to understand that the question of whether nostalgia or innovation is best, isn't one which necessarily has an answer.
Card related or not, every business needs to listen to the desires of their consumers. Ensuring the make-up of a product aligns with consumer demand is an important metric in determining the success of a release. In saying that however, humans are creatures of habit and when given the opportunity, they will most likely desire something that is already known to have a positive outcome. So while its great to promote community engagement and encourage feedback, it needs to be balanced with the caution of collectors not actually knowing what they may resonate with! Referring back to the Virtuoso's in Prestige 2022, and the Iconic's in the most recent Footy Stars, there was overwhelming demand for something different to the status quo but ultimately ended up landing on deaf collector ears!
So if the community can't be fully trusted with future innovation suggestions, what does future change then look like? It's of my opinion that it has little to do with the look, feel and insert sentiment of cards, and more what they are able to represent! Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of "new" ideas that could be tweaked from other hobbies that would likely garner positive reactions. However, they probably wouldn't draw any fresh eyes to the trading card hobby, and would simply appease solidified members in the card ecosystem. While we want the existing collector base to be happy, it doesn't necessarily represent positive growth. Alright, then what is?
An initiative that overseas card manufacturer 'Topps' introduced this baseball season was the 'MVP Buyback Offer' where collectors were given the opportunity to "hand-back" the card parallel variants of the conference MVP's with participating hobby stores, in exchange for store credit. This has brought fresh eyes to hobby stores around the country and engaged more casual collector and facilitate REAL hobby growth. Topps also welcomed a "Social Media Follow-Back' redemption in their 'Big Leagues' product, which is targeted towards younger collectors. By pulling one of these redemption cards, the recipient goes in the running to win a social media follow of a player from their supported team!
So with that in mind, what types of initiatives could be implemented to facilitate the growth of the AFL hobby? Mechanisms which promote local artistry, much like TeamCoach's arrangement with Tyson Beck, could bring interest in digital media circles and brings different vested interests into trading cards. As mentioned earlier with the success of the 'Instant Win' cards, that premise could be expanded further into real-life experience redemptions such as Grand Final packages, or club membership entitlements.
As of only a few weeks ago, there are over 1 MILLION AFL club members for the 2023 season. The number of non-paying members who follow AFL likely swamps this massive figure, equating to a massive amount of invested stakeholders in the sport of AFL! Reliable sources within the hobby have regularly discussed Select's 30,000-50,000 customer base, so it's fair to say that even a 1-2% increase in supporter crossover in the trading card hobby could increase collector number exponentially!
Not only is their opportunity with paying members, but another opportunity to solidify the future of card collecting is through 'kid collectors'! A report in 2017 stated that 'Auskick' participation rates were over 200,000, which includes kids from the ages of 5-12. While TeamCoach already operate in this space with their exclusive Auskick trading card set, future endeavors to try convert these budding individuals into hobby market participants will only mean could things for the future of the ecosystem!
Even though this article focuses on unpacking the battle between of innovation and nostalgia, the underlying theme is the collector mindset. Card companies can listen as much as they can, but unless WE as a community are able to describe a path that's easy to follow what can we truly expect? Hopefully this article is the beginning of this conversation and other collectors can provide ideas as to how we can make life as a collector even better!